Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
The cider and cranberry Jell-O recipe was, we decided, too plausible an introduction to the salacious world of twentieth-century Jell-O salads.
“See, this is the sort of thing I could imagine finding at Grandma’s,” I told my wife, looking up briefly from a PDF scan of a 1931 cookbook titled The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book. “I mean, conceivably. Leastways I bet you could find it at a church potluck somewhere.”
Jes shrugged. “It would be edible, though.”
“True…” I waggled my cursor over the recipe. Cider, cranberry juice, strawberry Jell-O. Nothing too weird. Nothing particularly untoward. Jes watched me.
Finally, I scrolled back up to the top of the page.
“Well,” I said, sighing, “what do you think about the cheese cube relish?”
It bears halting here to emphasize a point. Despite the absence of “Jell-O,” or “gelatin,” or “boiled animal body parts” from the recipe’s title, this cheese cube relish is indeed a variety of Jell-O salad. In particular, the dish is representative of so-called savory Jell-O salads, a variety of gelatin that, once upon a time, figured prominently in the diet of white, middle class America. Appearing in everything from entrées to appetizers, these savory salads boasted none of the sweetness now associated with Jell-O, and sometimes actively campaigned against it. Take the cheese cube relish. In contrast with the sugariness of the gelatin desserts and “jigglers” that outlasted it, the recipe calls for a generous four teaspoons of vinegar to round out a dish that quiveringly suspends hunks of cheese and slivered sweet pickles in a sweaty, dark-green lime Jell-O.
The above picture is the cheese cube relish that Jes and I made as the first dish in our three-course archival dive into the history of Jell-O. We served it as the appetizer to our entrée—a Jell-O salad dubiously referred to as “jellied seafood” in The Greater JRB (picture below)—and followed it with jellied strawberries for dessert, because we felt our taste buds had earned a break at that point (also below).
With the possible exception of the dessert, the first two dishes would seem to make their own case for why the savory salad, as a particular genus of Jell-O, went the way of the dodo. Indeed the jellied seafood alone, an unpromising concoction of chopped shrimp in a cocktail-sauce-lemon-gelatin blend, is enough to inspire gobsmacked incredulity among even today’s most generous gourmands. The same holds for other culinary marvels in the JRB, like the “olive relish” (olives, pickles, lime Jell-O) and the “corned beef loaf” (you heard me). In point of fact, the web is practically teeming with listicles with titles like “Horrifyingly Disgusting Retro Gelatin Recipes” and “Truly Upsetting Vintage Recipes,” each of them effectively asking, with the internet’s usual restraint, the question whyyyyyyyy?
Why did anyone ever think these foods were a good idea?
I’m going to try to answer that question in two ways. The first involves a look at the history of gelatin and its relation to class. The second, shockingly, has to do with taste.
Although it may come as a surprise to some of us now, for whom Jell-O often codes as either a kiddie food or a mark of well-meaning inelegance, gelatin itself has enjoyed a long history as a luxury product. The reason is simple. Because of the labor and time involved in extracting collagen—the key component of gelatin—from animal remains, and because gelatin requires reliable access to refrigeration in order to solidify, for a long time only the wealthy had regular access to gelatin. Wiggly and ridiculous, gelatin nevertheless came to signify the difference between the haves and the have nots. In a grimly apt illustration of the intersection of wealth, labor, and gelatin, Thomas Jefferson reportedly served wine jelly at Monticello, his sprawling slave-run plantation in Virginia.
1897, however, saw a change in gelatin’s fortunes when Pearl B. Wait developed powdered gelatin as we know it today. Dubbed Jell-O by May Wait, Pearl’s wife, this powdered gelatin could be produced cheaply and had only to be dissolved in boiling water to begin forming. What followed, then, was a veritable Jell-O boom that kicked off around the turn of the century. Middle-class American families, eager to capitalize on what amounted to a status symbol, scrambled to incorporate Jell-O into their culinary repertoire. Moreover, the burgeoning of thrift culture guaranteed the allure of this new, inexpensive version of gelatin. Published during the early years of the Depression, The Greater JRB vacillates between lauding Jell-O’s refinement (“Desserts that look like you’ve been hobnobbing with famous chefs”) and praising its economy—sometimes even in the same sentence: “Entrees that look and taste different and (secret) may be made with yesterday’s left-overs!” On this view, the savory Jell-O salad hit a sort of gastronomic sweet spot in American food culture.
The second reason for savory Jell-O salad’s existence has to do with taste, and here I make a pointed departure from the internet’s tendency toward shrill revulsion. Insofar as sampling three representative Jell-O salads makes me an authority on all things Jell-O, I offer this: I did not find these foods terrible. Or even bad.
Now, before I lose whatever semblance of credibility I’ve managed to stitch together, I want to stress first that I do not equate “not bad” with “good.” Additionally, I would note that I fully expected to be nauseated by this ordeal. A quick skim of my journal confirms as much. “Impressions of Nasty Jell-O Food,” reads one heading. Another, to which I appended a helpful gloss, reads, “Cocktail Entrée (Shit).” Even Jes predicted the worst. Here she is moments before trying her first bite of jellied seafood:
Yet for all our anticipated disgust, the reactions I recorded largely reflect, if not genuine approval, then at least surprised distaste. The cheese cube relish, while very much not my thing, had a sort of melt-away pickle flavor that was not wholly unpleasant. Likewise and to its credit, the jellied seafood tasted more or less like a shrimp cocktail—which is another way of saying that it pretty much obscured the sweet tanginess of its lemon Jell-O base. And as for our outlier-dish, the jellied strawberries, it delivered the mind-altering sweetness one might expect from a recipe with the gall to combine strawberries, strawberry Jell-O, and a full cup of sugar.
Would I eat this stuff again? No. No. Context influences taste, and at this point the twenty-first century has carried my taste too far afield to find pleasure in classic Jell-O salads of the early twentieth century. Still, more unpleasant foods have graced my palate, and in light of the cultural forces that contributed to its existence, I’m willing to revise my initial opinion of the Jell-O salad from “regrettable” to merely “ill-advised.”
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.